The Presidential Debate: Resisting the Pull of Frames

by Wendy Williamson, Esq.

*a version of this article was published in the Daily Report

No doubt, the last thing on your mind while watching the first debate was mediation, framing or reframing. The Presidential candidates, however, were purposefully seeking to engage the audience’s “frames” to emotionally pull them toward one side or the other. In our world of sound bites, 24-hour news and increasing divisiveness, we all need to manage our own “frames” very thoughtfully. We have many contemporary names for framing: branding, biases, values, stereotypes, profiling, to name a few.  During the first 30 minutes of the debate, the candidates repeatedly used the following descriptors to cause a desired emotional reaction in their audience:  veteran politicians, the wealthiest, big corporations, the middle class, law and order, jobs going overseas, NAFTA, policing, gun violence, stop and frisk, withholding tax returns, deleted emails, the Islamic State, college debt, equal pay for women, China, Mexico, climate change, etc. It is important for us to recognize that both candidates have been diligently trying to create new “frames” with expressions like “Trumped Up Trickle Down Economics” and “Crooked Hillary.”


Douglas Nolls defines a frame as “nothing more than a reality constructed by our brains to make sense of the world around us.”[1]  Peter Blanciak explains that “our experience of the world is based on categorization of the objects of our perception into classes,’ and that ‘once an object is conceptualized as the member of a given class, it is extremely difficult to see it also as belonging to another class.’”[2] For example, we teach our children that strangers are dangerous and then later we find ourselves struggling with our children who react in fear to every new person they meet.


My definition of framing is a built-in reaction to a term, category, name or group that colors and filters our perception either positively or negatively. Through memory, emotions and environmental cues, we construct frames that define what is important to us or protect us from some danger. Douglas Nolls points out that frames are “generally created pre-consciously, which means that they arise outside of conscious awareness and before we know they have been created.”[3] Can you remember learning not to touch fire or to run if you see a rattlesnake? These frames were implanted in you for a fast reaction necessary for survival. “Framing allows us to almost instantaneously judge a situation, make sense out of, and react. It has strong evolutionary benefit in a dangerous, uncertain environment.”[4]


As a mediator, I am particularly fascinated by what is called “selective perception.” Our frames can literally affect what we see or hear and what we ignore. “What is important to us is within our frame; what is not important does not exist.”[5] We will see and hear things that fit within our frame but we won’t see or hear things that are inconsistent with our frames. This filtering of information leads to “confirmation bias” which causes us to look only for confirming evidence while we reject contradictory, but possibly true, evidence.  If you want an excellent example of “selective perception” resulting in “confirmation bias,” look at the Facebook postings on the days following the debate. One would think two different debates occurred based upon the polar opposite victories passionately claimed by supporters of each candidate.


To understand the effect of framing and how to overcome frames, it is important to understand the biological origins of framing. System 1 thinking is critical to survival and allows us to automatically react to enough information to protect ourselves. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, requires actively looking for information that contradicts or is outside of our frame. System 2 thinking must be intentional and is usually uncomfortable and requires hard work. System 2 thinking is often called “critical thinking.” As a species, we will resort to System 1 thinking unless we are prompted or lured into System 2 thinking, which is the job of a mediator. While our early ancestors relied almost exclusively on System 1 thinking to survive, our generation must use System 2 thinking to manage the information overload that is inherent in our complex, multimedia lives.


I hope you are now seeing how this might impact upon attorneys, mediators and mediation. Some examples of frames [or beliefs] that mediators witness regularly in mediation are listed below:

  • The opponent’s lawyer is corrupt, untrustworthy, crafty
  • Insurance adjustors are stingy and heartless
  • The opponent lies and hides information
  • Plaintiff’s attorneys are greedy and aggressive
  • Defense attorneys are obsessive compulsive, ferreting through medical records and counting pennies
  • Plaintiffs exaggerate their injuries
  • Mediators will agree with everything you say


System 1 thinking in mediation will keep us tied to our positions and resistant to proposals for solutions.  The difficult job of the mediator is to enable each participant in mediation to employ System 2 thinking to take in uncomfortable information and to rationally analyze the facts and proposals during mediation. Using reframing, an experienced mediator can humanize an opponent and normalize the process so that parties can reach outside of their frames and appreciate facts that may not support the conclusions they had reached before mediation. “Reframing is the art and science of employing words and actions in order to alter a person’s perspective of a specific situation with the intention of initiating a change in behavior. The art is in accomplishing the process without manipulating the facts of the situation, the science is doing so at the right time and with the correct results.”[6] For example, helping a party to identify favorable or acceptable terms in an offer from their opponent can be very powerful in overcoming the assumption that all offers will be all bad or hurtful. When one party is operating from the belief that the other party is irrational, explaining an offer in rational terms and explaining the concerns of the other party by using non-accusatory words can help one party recognize the humanity in the other party. Mediators are carefully trained to use reframing effectively to change negatives into positives and to reshape the essence of what parties say to each other into a more palatable form.


I hope that I have changed how you will watch the next Presidential debate. I ask that you write down the “frames” employed by each candidate and I dare you to find any objective data presented by either candidate to support their “frames.”  Do the hard work of separating frames from facts and train your mind to listen openly to both candidates regardless of your pre-debate leanings. Through this exercise, you will learn a great deal about how to work with clients who bring “frames” into your office. I pity the lawyer and client who build a case on frames without undertaking the hard work to look under and around the frame for the “other side of the story.”



[1]See Douglas E. Nolls, Entrenched Beliefs and the Art of Framing,

[2] See Peter Blanciak, Reframing: The Essence of Mediation, citing Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland & Richard Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (1974).

[3] See Douglas E. Nolls, Entrenched Beliefs and the Art of Framing,

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Ehsan Zaffar, Context is King: A Practical Guide to Reframing in Mediation, 2008,